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We're all friends here - especially if you want a tax exemption

January 29, 2006|By TIM ROWLAND

The Washington County Commissioners' best friend at the moment is the Hagerstown City Council. Yes, you may think to yourself, there are some things the county could be doing better, but at least it is not a zoo.

Yet it was just five short years ago that the Commissioners were rolling their eyes at the council for hiring an Annapolis lobbyist to do the job that, to be honest, our own lawmakers should have been able to handle on their own.

Of course the City Council was so much older then/it's younger than that now, as Dylan would say, and this week the County Commissioners on a 3-2 vote decided that having its own lobbyist was not such a bad idea after all.

The commissioners and each of three local business groups will pitch in $3,000 for the lobbyist. This amount is so small, in light of the amount of state money the county is shooting for in return, that it is almost quaint that two commissioners would think it an extravagance.

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Fussing at spending three grand in exchange for being a player in Annapolis is something only a "rural, out-here" county would do - something Commissioner Dori Nipps insists we no longer are.

If Nipps isn't right, she is close to being so. The time when no one who mattered was paying attention to us is gone (see Hagerstown, in re: Mays, Willie). And the time when cronyism took precedent over professionalism is slipping.

The problem with being a grownup, of course, is that you're expected to act like one even when you would rather not. And if the county is going to be the true, sophisticated, grown-up that it desires to be, the Commissioners must realize that adulthood is a trust. Decisions must be sound and no longer can you always side with your bestest buddy as you could get away with in your schoolyard days.

But this trust has to be earned, which is why Del. LeRoy Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, was right to question the county's motive for seeking permission to exempt certain businesses from its new development tax.

There's a clear case to be made for giving the county this permission. In the crazy, mixed-up world of economic development, what's the point of having a tax in place if you can't remove the tax, thereby making your location more desirable, somehow, than a jurisdiction that has no tax to begin with.

"The state does this every day with exemptions, waivers and credits," Del. Richard Weldon, R-Washington/Frederick, correctly pointed out.

But I would emphasize the word "state." A big, serious state staffed by a bunch of - and here, it's a good thing - faceless bureaucrats. A small, friendly county is different. Too many people know too many other people.

What Myers wants to know from commissioners is this: How do we know you will be fair? Why will some businesses certainly get this tax exemption while others certainly will not? What are the standards? Are large companies from outside the area that promise lots of jobs somehow more worthy than a small, local business just trying desperately to get off the ground?

And I would add one other, more awkward question: How do we know you don't want this tax-exemption power just so you can hand tax breaks out like candy to all of your friends? How do we know someone with a well-established Washington County name won't get preferential treatment?

This is a question that might not even come up, were it not for the recent case of the Mellott Estates quarry near Mount Aetna. Commissioners overruled the advice of their own planning commission and allowed the quarry to expand its operations into increasingly residential areas, over the objection of some 400 members of the community. No one with an understanding of land use and geology thought this was a good idea. This was a no-brainer, and three of the five commissioners demonstrated no brains.

In a judgment case such as this, rewarding a long-standing, corporate member of the community is by no means illegal. But it is exactly the kind of thing you expect from "rural, out-here" counties, to borrow from Nipps.

It's a decision showing - at least to about 400 very interested Washington County residents - that you still do your job in the best of backwater, back-slapping traditions. Claudia Eklund, a member of the group fighting quarry expansion put it this way: "Commissioners do not have the ability to recuse themselves in a decision that involves personal interests."

That translates to that fact that plenty of people - not just Myers - question whether the county is responsible enough hand out tax exemptions on a case-by-case basis.

The commissioners will likely get their exemption powers, anyway.

But with each exemption the County Commissioners bestow on someone, the rest of us will be left to wonder: "Who in the county government does this person know?"

That burden, fair or unfair, can be removed only by the passage of time and good behavior, not by the passage of legislation.

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